Florida Top Draw for COVID-Weary Vacationers, Topping Pre-Pandemic Levels: Ron DeSantis

Florida remained a top destination for vacationers across the country, and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis recently said tourism for the state had topped pre-pandemic levels, the Associated Press reported.

Orlando and Miami prove to be top vacation spots for tourists, and the state of Florida had 32.5 million travelers from July to September this year. That's more visitors during the same time period for pre-pandemic 2019, DeSantis said.

Borders opened up for the United States earlier this month and the state is expecting more international vacationers. However, it is unknown how the new COVID-19 omicron variant will affect international traveling.

"The moment the borders and the flights were reopened in November, we started to see bookings from Europe and South America," said Milton Sgarbi, a vice president at 1 Hotel South Beach in Miami.

Southwest and JetBlue airlines added routes to Miami for the first time and about 50 new hotels are planned to open in Florida by March.

Orlando is busy as ever during the holiday season. Advanced bookings for Christmas and New Year compared to the 2019 holiday season are at about 95 percent.

"The holiday season is going to be strong for our destination," said Casandra Matej, president and CEO of Visit Orlando.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Walt Disney World, Florida, Covid-19, Pre-Pandemic
Cooped-up tourists eager for a taste of Florida's sandy beaches, swaying palm trees and warmer climates are visiting the Sunshine State in droves, topping pre-pandemic levels in recent months. Above, guests stroll along Main Street at the Magic Kingdom theme park at Walt Disney World on August 30, 2021, in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. John Raoux, File/AP Photo

The theme-park home of Orlando is always popular during tourist season, and now has big draws such as Disney's 50th-anniversary celebration; new attractions including Peppa Pig Theme Park, which opens in February; and several new hotels.

"As we look ahead, bookings for January and February are triple the volume we saw at this time last year," Matej said.

Across Florida, vacation rentals through the end of the year are trending over 42 percent higher than 2019, and seat capacity on domestic flights is nearly 4 percent higher, according to Visit Florida.

Miami is one of the top search destinations on travel websites and statewide.

"We had bachelorette parties, we had reunions, we had weddings, not as big as we used to have in the past, but small weddings almost every weekend. Last weekend, we had three weddings," said Sgarbi.

Despite the pandemic, the high-end hotel flourished in 2021 with leisure travelers. Normally, they see an even mix of business and leisure, but he expects the business market will pick up in 2022, along with the international tourists.

Karen Aguilar came to Miami in November—just weeks after the borders reopened—to enjoy the sun from Bucaramanga, Colombia.

"You have to come and enjoy the views, the beaches, the people. It's very friendly and yeah, I'll be back," she said.

Miami and Florida typically have an even mix of domestic and international tourism, but with the borders closed because of COVID-19 in 2021, cities launched massive marketing campaigns courting U.S. tourists who were tired of being cooped up.

"Domestic tourism came back like gangbusters," said Rolando Aedo, of the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau. "We expanded our market share of domestic visitors driven partially by the fact that Florida and Miami were open when others weren't and there was a lot of pent-up demand."

While much of the country was shut down, several new hotels opened up in Miami and Aedo said the nation's cruise capital of Miami broke ground on new port terminals to meet demand as several cruise lines, including Virgin, recently came onboard here.

Miami is also expanding as a destination: In addition to perenially popular South Beach, the burgeoning art district known as Wynwood has become a top draw. Wynwood officials estimate nearly 6 million visitors will have checked out the trendy area in 2021, up from roughly 5 million in 2020.

Chic new restaurants and boutique shops opened all year long in Wynwood, where most of the buildings and sidewalks are covered in grand technicolor murals. TripAdvisor even named Wynwood one of the coolest hipster destinations in the U.S.

Andrew Cronin, a resident of Orlando, Florida, has visited South Beach several times, but now says, "I do like coming a little bit more to Wynwood and Brickell because you really get to feel the real experience of Miami, like the heart of Miami."

Miami, Tourism Industry, COVID-19
Beach chairs and umbrellas line the beach on November 15, 2021, in Miami Beach, Florida. As the tourism industry struggles to bounce back from COVID-19, and eager but tentative travelers resume plans, Miami is one of the top search destinations on several travel websites. Lynne Sladky/AP Photo